Interviewee: Elizabeth McMillan Thompson
Interviewer: Jane Abernathy Plyler
Dates: September 29 and 30, 1979
Location: Fayetteville, NC
Elizabeth McMillan Thompson was born in 1908, in Tarboro, North Carolina. She was the first black public health nurse in North Carolina. She attended Shaw University in Raleigh, and in 1929, she received a B.S. in nursing from Freedmanâs Hospital in Washington, D.C. a year later, she obtained a public health nursing degree from Howard University. She got her first job with the Cumberland County Health Department, and she continued to work there for thirty-eight years, the remainder of her career. For some time, she worked simultaneously at the health department and at Fayetteville State University and then Fayetteville State Normal School, as the college nurse. This arrangement paid for her room and board at the university. Thompson helped to organize the Midwife Institutes held at Fayetteville State University in the 1930s. She became president of the North Carolina Negro Nursesâ Association in 1936 and of the National Colored Nursesâ Association in 1942. She married in 1943 and adopted a daughter in 1959. She died in 1982.
In this interview, Thompson describes her childhood, family background, early interest in medicine, and education, and decision to go into public health nursing. She explains the tasks she performed as a public health nurse. She was first appointed during a smallpox epidemic, so she gave immunizations, dealt with quarantine requirements, and cared for patients. As her career progressed, she continued to give immunizations and inoculations to the public, made visits to schools, administered treatments for patients with venereal disease, and provided women with birth control. She educated midwives and oversaw maternal health issues in her area. She dealt primarily with the African-American community in Cumberland County, but she also worked with Native Americans. Thompson discusses her own routine and way of life as a public health nurse, as well as her eventual strategies for balancing her work and family life.
Thompson makes observations about the way of life of black tenant farmers in the 1920s and 1930s. In her work, she created a rapport with the African-American community and acted as an intermediary between white doctors and their black patients. As she explains, racism and segregation sometimes formed obstacles in her work, and she also faced antagonism from a local black practitioner of folk medicine. However, it was the rewarding response to her work within the local black community that convinced her to stay in what was originally a short-term assignment for the rest of her career.